If you’ve been running your agency for a while, you probably have encountered many scope creep examples since you started your business. It is one of the most common challenges that agencies face.
While it is easy to complain about it when it happens, it is far more effective to put a plan in place for how to manage it.
In this guide, we’ll share what scope creep is, how to manage it, and some examples.
- What is scope creep?
- What are the main causes of scope creep?
- How to manage scope creep
- 9 actionable tips for how agency owners have managed scope creep successfully
What is scope creep?
Scope creep happens when a project or specific deliverable exceeds the original scope of work.
It is usually framed as a bad thing since it can:
- Derail a project
- Lead to higher costs or exceeding your budget altogether
- Damage your reputation with a client
- Be the reason a project fails
Contrary to popular opinion, scope creep doesn’t have to be a bad thing. In fact, if managed properly, it can help you build trust and rapport with your client by showing that your team is adaptable, willing to accept feedback on the fly, and has their best interest in mind. Not to mention, an increase in scope can mean additional revenue for your agency!
For example, there are some projects that will almost always result in scope creep, such as a website rebrand. There are certain things you can’t plan for or even know until you start working on the project.
What are the main causes of scope creep?
Scope creep is sneaky in the sense that you don’t wake up one day and suddenly see a project that is a shell of its former self. It usually starts with small changes that quickly add up.
Here are some of the main causes for scope creep.
- No clear project goal
The biggest reason why scope creep happens is there wasn’t a clear end-goal or any success metrics in place. Because you didn’t clarify, “What success looks like?,” this means a project that is done can drag on for weeks – if not months – in the guise of searching for perfection.
- Unrealistic project deliverables or timeframes
When scoping out a project, you should build a detailed schedule with deadlines assigned to all of the micro-deliverables. This means that if a project is going off the rails, you’ll be able to spot and course-correct it before it gets any worse.
- Failure to set proper expectations upfront
This usually happens during the client onboarding experience. If you aren’t clearly setting and managing client expectations early and often, you are asking for problems later.
- No feedback loops
A big piece of managing your client’s expectations is having the right feedback mechanisms in place to not only collect but also triage and apply to the feedback. The more that you can normalize conversations around feedback and performance, the more you will be able to proactively address any scope creep concerns.
- Lack of organization
If you are still managing projects through your inbox and spreadsheets, it is too easy for things to fall through the cracks. Having software – like ProcessKit – allows you to systemize your processes and always have a bird’s eye view of where any given project stands.
- Poor communication skills
The final reason why scope creep can happen is if the agency founder or project manager doesn’t have great communication skills. This is admittedly harder to fix than some of the other causes.
How to manage scope creep
Whether you end up building a stronger relationship with your client or the project ends in disaster, it is all in how you manage it.
Here is a step by step guide for how to manage scope creep so that you can increase your chance of the first outcome. 😉
Define the project goal
Before you even close the deal, you should be having open and honest conversations around the goals of the project. The more clarity you have upfront, the less likely you will have problems later on.
Establish what success looks like
Once you know what the project goal is, you should work with your client on key success metrics.
Realistically, you might start this conversation in sales. However, you’ll finalize it during the onboarding period.
Pro Tip: Make sure to write down the project goal and all success metrics, and share it with all team members on the account.
By tackling this upfront, you are making a habit of normalizing conversations around performance. Your client will view you as an invested partner that cares about getting results and not just a hired gun.
Break the project into micro-deliverables
Breaking a big project into smaller tasks is not only a great way to avoid procrastination but can also help you ensure you stay on track.
Each task should be in your project management software with an owner – who is responsible for making sure the task is complete along with a deadline.
Share your progress early and often
While you don’t need to invite your client into your project management software, you should have some way of externalizing your progress on a regular basis.
After all, there is nothing that feeds buyer’s remorse or potential conflicts more than a client who feels like they are in the dark.
One of the simplest ways to show your progress is through a weekly update email. You can share what you did that week, what you are working on next week and anything that you are waiting on the client for (such as approving an earlier deliverable).
Create feedback loops
Another advantage of sharing your progress weekly is you can build in regular feedback loops.
This can come in the form of a clear approval process for each micro-deliverable where you can also collect, triage, and apply any feedback from the client.
Or, it can come from regular, structured calls.
It doesn’t matter what method you choose as long as you have some way to collect feedback regularly.
Be aware of gold-plating
Gold-plating is another form of perfectionism. You need to come to a consensus with your client on what done looks like.
Being able to point back to your agreed-upon goal and success metrics can avoid you having to make 1% improvements for months on end.
What to do when the scope does change
So, you are doing everything right, and you find yourself in a situation where the scope has changed? There are three different ways you can manage it.
The first way is the most straightforward. You can discuss what it would look like to add to your project timeframe and budget.
While this can work well for the agency since more revenue, it can quickly feel adversarial to your client since no one likes to feel like they are being nickeled and dimed.
You want to tread lightly on how you manage these new fees.
Another way to manage it is to compromise and readjust your current scope. You won’t charge them any additional fees, but you might extend the timeline.
Let’s say you run a podcast editing productized service. You normally charge $600 to edit up to 4 one-hour episodes per month.
Your client sends you a 3-hour episode to edit. Instead of charging your client an extra fee, you might offer to edit it but treat it as 3 episodes in their monthly package.
Finally, if you have a great relationship with the client, you might be able to manage this by readjusting their expectations. I’d personally recommend this as a last resort and only try this over the phone or in-person as it is too easy to come across defensive over email.
9 actionable tips for how agency owners have managed scope creep successfully
We reached out to more than a dozen marketing agency owners to learn how they manage scope creep.
Use the scope as your unique value proposition
Brian Casel, the founder of ProcessKit as well as the productized service, Audience Ops says, “What separates an effective productized service from a generalized agency, is a well-defined scope.
In many cases, this scope is actually the reason clients come to your service. At Audience Ops, our homepage lays out the pre-defined scope of deliverables (and pricing), all aimed at solving the problem of done-for-you blog content.
When prospects visit our site, it reduces the selling down to a simple “yes/no” proposition. If “yes”, they resonate with the problem we solve and our scope for solving, then it’s an easy buying decision. If “no”, what we lay out is not quite what they want or need, then they probably won’t become our client, and that’s a better outcome both for my team and for them.”
Vet your clients before you start working with them
While you can’t avoid scope creep entirely, you can reduce the chance of a poor outcome by vetting who you work with.
Harriet Welch says, “Be choosy about clients and don’t try to be the cheapest option.
If your rate is super low, then they have zero incentive to control the creep.
Or, if you work with assholes who don’t care whether or not you’re a person. Working with nice people who you charge enough and then scope creep is less of a problem because they do it less and because you won’t mind growing your relationship with them.”
Ben McAdam adds, “Finding a group of people with the same problem, designing a 90-95%+ standardized solution, and having the confidence (or savings buffer) to say no to poor fit clients.
However, don’t rigidly define the service too early.
You might miss out on the gold mine slightly outside the scope, or with a slightly different target audience.”
Talk openly about goals and expectations during your sales process
You may notice a pattern. The earlier you can build rapport and get in front of potential stumbling blocks, the better you’ll be able to manage it.
Charlene Burke says, “During my sales conversation, I make it a point to say that I don’t like surprises. Therefore I prefer to have expectations stated and understood from the beginning and warn them that if I see or suspect that “scope creep” is about to happen, I treat it like a spider in my house. I make sure we all understand what is about to happen, and they control the final treatment.”
Set clear expectations in writing
“For me, it’s been about being clear about expectations in my SOW,” says Allison Grinberg-Funes. “And, it took a while to get comfortable with, but if a client asks for something beyond the scope, I reiterate the boundary that is our contract and suggest a meeting to discuss further needs, their cost, & an amendment.”
Jason Nellis adds, “You have to make it very, very clear to clients that whatever work isn’t covered in the SOW has a specific cost.
I usually include a clause/addendum that spells out an hourly rate for additional work as well as a process for signing off on that work. That way, if someone tries to get me to do 4 rounds of copy edits when I commit to 3, I point to that page and let them know that each round will cost between X and Y amounts. It usually results in them backing down (or, on occasion, signing off on more work, which is also fine).”
Define your deliverables at the start
You might even add your key deliverables – along with deadlines – in your contract.
Asia Rau says, “Along with noting new projects/tasks can be added to a contract with associated fees, Include an “at-a-glance” list of deliverables in the contract, so it’s easy to point to when a client asks for something else/new – and if able to take the new task on, it’s far easier to say, “I’d love to add ‘X’ to our contract’s project deliverables for $X/monthly (or flat fee if a one-off item). If that sounds good to you, I’ll send you an addendum to make sure we’re set to move forward.”
Julian Ignacio Canlas adds, “Define the deliverables early on and have them agree with this.
With content and design, this may consist of having a defined word count and the number of revision requests. Having a project timeline set can also help tackle scope.
Own the strategy process. This lets you define the deliverables and project timeline.
Monetize scope variables. This can include publishing posts and outreach.
Define the factors that lead to scope creep. In the process of running a biz, you learn the things that make your job longer. Name and monetize them.
Hire for scope creep. This is a bit tricky, but you need to learn to systemize your processes and get contacts that can help you monetize and manage scope creep.
Scope creep can be beneficial if you get extra revenue from them.”
Create a visual timeline of all of your deliverables
For example, you can even build out a graphic to demonstrate what you’ll deliver and when.
“When we do social media management for clients, I find ourselves ending up being the PA for clients,” says Shasha Malik. “We ended up doing more than what they engaged us for initially, e.g., to tidy their Gdrive filled with photos and whatnot.
So we illustrated a timeline to manage their expectations from the start. Now we find that our clients are able to recognize what they need to get done on their side in order for us to produce the calendar they need.”
This is easier said than done, especially if your agency is newer.
“I say no,” says Karl L. Hughes. “I wasn’t very good at it early in, but once I built up enough of a client base, I got the confidence to start pushing back on clients.
Counterintuitively, clients have really appreciated that we set clear boundaries about what we can and can’t do. It usually just forces them to work within our constraints.”
Corbin Buff adds, “Be polite but firm, and say that the new demands being asked of you aren’t in line with what you originally discussed (assuming that’s the case) – and either offer to still do the work for a higher rate or to walk away. I’ve had to do both.”
Build scope creep into your pricing structure
If you’ve been running your business for a while, you might have a good idea of where scope creep can creep in. You can build that into how you price projects.
Mike Walker says, “We handle estimates two ways.
1. If you have (or we can help you define) your project scope, we’re comfortable building an estimate around it.
2. If you don’t, we’ll do a project on a retainer basis based on a rough-estimate. (i.e., we think it will take 4 months at X dollars/month). If the scope changes, we may finish sooner or may need to continue for additional months.
Option 1 is usually good for websites where we know the features/functionality. Option 2 is usually more for web applications where clients have an idea, but we’re unsure of exact specs or particular integrations.”
Send “zero invoices”
One way to enforce boundaries is by sending zero invoices.
“If you’re new (or nervous), a simple strategy to start with is sending zero invoices to clients,” says Kendra Wright.
‘Hi client, that is unfortunately not in our scope of work, but I’m happy to throw that in this time and going forward, we can add major changes to phase 2 of the project or discuss 1-off pricing.’
Then, I send them an invoice with whatever you did for them (with what you would charge) and “zero it out” so they can see, what you did usually costs money.
Most of the time, clients don’t realize what they are asking for or that it’s even out of scope.
That’s your responsibility as an agency to help guide them.
This strategy can’t be used in all cases, but it allows you to start helping clients understand more clearly what is in or out of scope. And, I find that over time, clients will make a request and then ask, “Is this in scope?’
And, most of us would just do the extra work without building the awareness and setting our clients up for future success.”
In sum, as an agency owner, you have a lot of control over how you manage scope creep. If you accept responsibility, communicate effectively, and work with the client to reach an agreed-upon outcome, you can wind up strengthening your relationship with your client (and potentially adding more revenue!)